Wild at heart?

Garth Cartwright finds the reality of gypsy life a far cry from the myth perpetuated by musicians an

As evening fell on the dusty shanty town of Kjustendil, in south-west Bulgaria, the gypsy mahala - the ghetto - was alive with music. The following day was Ederlezi, the holy day of the gypsies, and they were celebrating, with trios of musicians playing bass drum, accordion and clarinet. In the plaza, dozens of people joined hands and danced horos in circles that spun in time to the music. The atmosphere was one of loose, whooping joy, a community celebrating its survival.

On the far side of the plaza, a youth doused a tractor tyre in petrol and tossed a match on top. The latex erupted into flame. For Europe's poorest people - the poverty here is more the kind seen in the developing world than that of an EU nation - a used tyre is easy to come by and will burn longer than wood. Those gathered in the plumes of bitter black smoke, some spitting mouthfuls of petrol at the fire, were young, blasted on cheap liquor and glue, pupils swollen, eyes bulging, some so high that they were blind.

My guide in the town was Jony Iliev, a gifted young singer who is the local hero of the mahala, a success first in Bulgaria and now across Europe. "Too much poverty," he said, gesturing at the youths, some as young as ten. "But what can I do? I'm not a politician." He is, however, one of many musicians bringing gypsy culture into the spotlight. This month, he will join the Romanian brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia and a host of legendary artists from across Europe at the Barbican in London to take part in The 1,000-Year Journey festival, a celebration of gypsy musical culture from Istanbul to Perpignan.

The festival has been a great success ever since it was first held in 2000, but experience suggests that our present enthusiasm for gypsy music does not necessarily equate with a more concerted attempt to understand Europe's largest (and most marginalised) minority. The people first mistaken for Egyptians when they arrived in Constantinople in 1068 have long been celebrated for their musical talent: classical composers, from Niccolò Paganini and Franz Liszt to Georges Bizet and Béla Bartók, have drawn inspiration from the joyous turbulence of gypsy music. Pop musicians from Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan to the contemporary New York punk band Gogol Bordello have evoked the wild and free spirit with which gypsies have been associated for generations.

But to what extent are we prepared to look beyond such stereotypes? The same tired old clichés are as current today as they ever were, as evidenced in the colourful feature films of Emir Kusturica and Tony Gatlif. I have come across gypsy bands that have been encouraged by their non-gypsy managers to play up to audiences' expectations of them - much as producers once encouraged African-American performers to devise minstrel routines.

The reality of gypsy life is as multifaceted as it is for any other community. If there's one thing that it certainly involves, it is hard, unyielding existence. When, in north-eastern Romania, I walk the dirt streets of Zece Prajini, an "invisible" village (it does not appear on any map) that is home to the extraordinary Fanfare Ciocarlia, the contrast is obvious. No matter what is achieved internationally by these musicians, their people still move to an ancient seasonal cycle: crops are harvested, animals slaughtered, churches attended, sons (and only sons) taught musical instruments.

Making music remains a major part of gypsy life, and because the people are aware that it is possible for gifted artists to earn handsomely from it, they take it seriously. In the Balkans today, with poor wages and endemic unemployment, the opportunities that music brings are more valued than ever. Romantic outsiders like to think, as do many gypsies themselves, that the musical talent of the community is "in the blood". But the reality is prosaic: an apprenticeship starts in childhood.

Boban Markovic, the premier Serbian gypsy trumpeter, has told me that his father would get home from work at night, wake him and make him play what he had learned that day. Boban himself took his son Marko out of school and into his orkestar when the boy was only 13. Nicolae Neacsu, the brilliant violinist of the Romanian band Taraf de Haïdouks who died in 2002, remembered that his mother was too poor to buy him a violin, so she would sing a melody and ensure he sang it back so that he would develop his ear. Esma Redzepova, Macedonia's illustrious "queen of the gypsies", studied at gypsy and workers' organisations that provided training in song and dance. She, too, turned professional at the age of 13 (the band leader insisted that her father sign a contract stating he would not marry her off before she was 18).

Gagging over fumes from the smouldering truck tyre, Jony and I retreated to a tiny bar. Rakija - plum brandy - washed the chemical residue away, and after a few shots Jony started to worry that I would judge his people by what I had seen in the mahala. He impressed upon me the work ethic inherent in becoming a gypsy musician. "Music was always my destiny. My father had me learning tambura [a hand drum] when I was two. He died when I was nine and as all my older brothers were musicians I joined them, performing at restaurants and festivities. Aged 12, I sang at a Turkish wedding for 12 hours and got such a good reception, I never was allowed to go back to school. It's not an easy life being a singer, working all night, sleeping in the day, travelling long distances. But it's the only life I know."

Garth Cartwright is the author of "Princes Amongst Men: journeys with gypsy musicians" (Serpent's Tail, £8.99)

The 1,000-Year Journey is at the Barbican, London EC2, from 29 May. http://www.barbican.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?